Updated on 09/16/2011 9:22AM

The Whitney took its toll

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LAS VEGAS - For the past two or three years the handicapping division has limped toward the Breeders' Cup in a state of near collapse. In recent years, most of the season-long leaders among older horses have either been injured or retired or have simply run out of gas before they even arrived at the Breeders' Cup Classic. Three-year-olds won the Classic in 1999 and 2000, and a 4-year-old (Tiznow) with a spotty record won it in 2001. And this year it looks like the Classic is likely to be won by a 3-year-old again.

On the West Coast this year the handicap season peaked in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 25. A 3-year-old, War Emblem, was the short-priced favorite in an oversized field. But he fell short. Instead, it was another 3-year-old, Came Home - an extremely talented runner who entered with dubious distance credentials - who passed the 1 1/4-mile test with a decisive victory over his elders.

Year-long campaigners Milwaukee Brew and Sky Jack disappointed. And Milwaukee Brew further re-enforced that decline with an even poorer performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last week. Meanwhile, early-season star Mizzen Mast remains on the shelf.

On the East Coast the wreckage has been much more severe - and you can blame it all on Left Bank and the Whitney.

In the Whitney at Saratoga, Left Bank ran a powerhouse race - among the most impressive efforts of recent years. All of the East's leading handicap horses (Street Cry, Lido Palace, and Macho Uno) chased him home in vain.

Immediately after the race I concluded that Street Cry had proved he was indeed overrated; that Lido Palace was still not showing signs of needed improvement, hanging again in the late stages; and that Macho Uno simply was not a top-caliber competitor - that his so-called tough trip in the Mass Cap, which had captured so much attention, was greatly over-hyped, and that he had actually benefited from a good trip, in a weak field, with an ordinary Beyer Figure of 110.

All of these judgments, however, had to be revised rather quickly when I saw Left Bank's Beyer Figure in the Whitney: a 121. That made me go back and reevaluate the trio who couldn't catch him at Saratoga. Street Cry looked a lot better when I realized that he had run a career-best Beyer of 119. Lido Palace did the same - a 119. Macho Uno looked better, too, with a 116. Now, rather than dismissing them as a bunch of under-achievers, I had to conclude that they had all run the race of their lives. Rather than believing that they had all performed rather modestly, I now had to consider that they had all peaked with all-out performances in the Whitney and could regress in their next starts.

The power of Left Bank's race in the Whitney can most clearly be demonstrated in the toll it has taken on the field.

* Left Bank developed life-threatening medical complications and is not expected to race again.

* Street Cry was retired after reports of minor physical ailments.

* Lido Palace took a big bounce down to a 105 in the Woodward, although that was still good enough to eke out a win in a very subpar field. He appeared to race rather sluggishly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, although his Beyer did improve to a 110 in his second-place finish behind Evening Attire.

Perhaps, unlike Lemon Drop Kid in 2000, Lido Palace could still recover from his late-season setback and make a strong impact in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

* Macho Uno ran Sunday in Arlington Park's Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap. He was a very short price in a very modest field. He showed absolutely nothing and ran absolutely last. His Beyer plummeted to a 97.

The Whitney was indeed, almost literally, a killer race.

Given this dramatic thinning of the handicap ranks, there are two other obvious places to look for the Classic winner: European runners, and 3-year-olds such as Medaglia d'Oro, Came Home, Repent, War Emblem, and Harlan's Holiday. The 3-year-olds again have taken over the stage late in the season. And there doesn't appear to be any mystery horse like Tiznow lurking in the wings.